A wise Bishop once explained to me that “Methodists have always fought their theological battles with polity not theology.” Polity is a word which stands for the rules and principles by which we order ourselves as church. We were studying the church spilt prior to the American civil war. As I watched this year’s historic called General Conference, I remembered that lesson. How true it remains. We know no other way than to attempt to solve our problems through rules of order. That way has brought us about as far as we can go.
On one hand, pragmatism has been Methodism’s unique gift to the church catholic – granted, occasionally we act and talk as if we invented the church ourselves. At our most Methodist, we set our doctrinal differences aside for the sake of mission; we organize and reorganize as needed to serve the world’s hurt in our unique time and place. This is an essential observation to understand the layer upon layer of rules in our Discipline. There is no one theology of the church that makes sense of it — though occasionally someone tries and makes even more of a mess of that pedantic book.
Historically, Methodist’s organize to advance mission, not for the sake of theological clarity or rhetorical elegance. On the other hand, when we do arrive at an impasse that is theological — our words about God and our lives in relationship to God — we have little other precedent or recourse but to talk and debate order; we throw the words 'accountability', 'biblical', and 'holiness' around, sounding confused enough at it as not to be convincing to anyone.
This General Conference was a battle over plans of order: polity. Polity happens through politics and politics is always about power (and money); whoever manages a majority pretends themselves to be the victor and arbiter of truth. At the height of the American Civil War, even Abraham Lincoln knew better than this. Robert’s Rules of order assume that a conversation is a battle, that a majority wins, and a minority voice (if it is at least a 3rd of the body) is heard. Robert's Rules are the work of a wise Army general. They are not equipment for theology. For that we need witness, humility, reverence. In theory we are called to be witness to the Word of a lone prophet, a minority of one, who spoke truth to power and was put to death for the sake of good order.
I was amused by the professional parliamentarian who was hired to bring to us some sense of decorum. He said – I paraphrase – “Friends, we need to talk. I’ve read your transcripts, two General Conferences worth. Your favorite thing is to rise to a ‘point of order.’” When a delegate raises a point of order, it is to claim an infraction of the rules has occurred; a foul serious enough that proceedings should stop and the error be corrected. We loooove doing that; mostly as an excuse to make a speech. As I watched the live debate, I longed for a way to rise to a point of theological order; to press a big red button and claim that an egregious foul had been committed, one worthy of pausing and sorting out a bit. I’m going to take some space in this and another post or two, to throw a flag on the play – to use an American sports term -- at key moments that rendered the parliamentary process theologically incontinent.
Here it goes; my first. And this was in a friendly action: a speech for one of the inclusive plans; pro gay, sort of. An earnest pastor from the south, a former district superintendent, rose to a speech in favor. As I remember it, he argued that human sexuality was such a small part – holding his fingers together in the “teeny weeny” gesture – of who we are and what we do that we should be setting aside our differences about LGBTQ sexuality so we can do the principle work of the church. Foul! I'm going to call a flag on that play. Maybe we should pause there, sisters and brothers, and talk about that a bit.
We are believers in a Word made flesh, as I recall. Salvation came and comes to us into this world, through enfleshed existence. Jesus said, I came that you may have life in all its fullness. The vision of the end the bible gives is not an escape from this world -- Plato gets this wrong -- it is God coming into this world, making all things new. Behold, our sexuality, our sensual orientation to this enfleshed world conditions everything we see and know and respond to as human beings. It is not a tiny part of being human; our sexuality is the warp and woof of our being. One of the church's first bishops, Irenaeus of Leon, put this vision of enfleshed salvation perfectly, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
Let me give a witness.
I am a gay man. I came out when I was 43. I have been blessed. I am grateful beyond words for those who have loved and cared for me. We did the best we could. However, ever since I was a child I have been haunted by a recurring nightmare. (Be at peace, I wouldn’t be telling you something this personal if I didn’t know exactly what it meant). One of the worst things I could imagine as a boy was getting into trouble: I was a preacher’s kid; small town; rural community. My goal was to be the best little boy in the world. Good boys weren’t gay. I was haunted by a dream. I would go into the basement, my basement, my house, my room and discover that there was a dead body buried there. I would be blamed. I wake up horrified, terrified, trembling. This dream, night and again, throughout my life until I was 43.
To make a long story of Calvinist providence and Wesleyan whimsy trivially short, I eventually found my way into the pastorate, or it found me. The revised common lectionary, Lent Year B, is a series of extraordinary texts from the gospel of John. The grace of the risen Christ stalks us on every page, challenging the reader to accept it. It was the penitumite Sunday, the Sunday before Palm Sunday. Lazurus dead, 3 days stinking dead. Mary and Martha angry. Jesus wept. And finally, there, I heard my savior’s grief stricken call: “Lazarus, Come Out.” That terrified gay child I had buried in the basement of my being, answered. I walked into the light. I was finally whole; awkward as anything, but fully alive. My sexual being united with the rest of me. I never had that dream again. Granted, my body that had been wracked by stress and anxiety, felt at midlife, like I was born again with 3 decades worth of stink. Yet I was finally whole, saved by the voice of my Lord. The acceptance of our sexual orientation toward God’s glorious creation is an essential, non negotiable part of salvation, wholeness of life, shalom We deny it to all we entomb with shame and ignorance, and to all those whom we have murdered, physically or spiritually, through our bigotry and violence.
Recounting this story, through that biblical lens, helps me to have compassion for those who have not yet opened themselves to this truth. To accept it one must stand at the grave of all those LGBTQI children who are dead because you have arrived too late. It requires us, as church and culture, to weep at what we have allowed to happen, to admit the harm we have done. Jesus wept. And so must you.
In reality, I am poor at theological argument. I detest conflict. But I am going to stand with Mary and Martha, angrily, and demand we come to the tomb of our gay children and weep. For it is only there that this church can bear witness to the grief stricken voice of her Lord who calls us out into the fullness of life and makes us whole. Some folks say I have courage, I don’t. Like the blind beggar of John 9, I didn’t ask for this life, or for this healing. At this point, I'm just a beggar at the Table of grace looking for someone to love. Interrogate me all you like. There is just one thing I know; it is the only thing I know for certain: once I was blind. Now I see.
And I dare you, double dog dare you, to claim that I am not taking the Bible seriously. Next time, we are going to call foul on that play.
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess